Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 52

Recent blunders by Moldova’s Communist authorities risk adding a confrontation in the south to the conflict in the east of Moldova. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the Turkish government are expressing concern.

Moldova is home to the world’s only Turkic Christian people, the Gagauz. By the same token, Moldova is the only country in Europe and the post-Soviet world to have created an ethnic-territorial autonomy, based on representative institutions: the Administrative Territorial Unit Gagauz-Yeri [Yeri = Land]. The Gagauz people, settled compactly in southern Moldova, numbering 153,000 at the time of the last census (1989) and perhaps 170,000 at present, is substantially larger than either the Abkhaz people or the Karabakh Armenians. In the early 1990s, the Gagauz seemed poised to follow the Transdniester, Abkhaz and Karabakh model of armed secession.

Chisinau’s decision in 1994 to create the Gagauz autonomy defused that threat. This autonomy represents one of the few enduring achievements of independent Moldova, was applauded by the OSCE and helped along by the Council of Europe, and has been supported by Turkey. In Chisinau, all but one of the major political forces have all along supported the Gagauz-Yeri special status. The one exception is the Christian-Democrat People’s Party (CDPP, the renamed Popular Front), currently the most active anticommunist opposition force. Wedded to the past-oriented concept of the national unitary state, the CDPP never accepted the creation or desirability of this ethnic-territorial autonomy.

For their part, the Communist authorities have recently managed to destabilize a stable situation in this part of Moldova. It is a measure of these authorities’ capacity for bungling that they are creating havoc in a territory that produced 90 percent Communist majorities in the 1998 and 2001 parliamentary elections, and whose people matches the Moldovan Communists’ pro-Russian sentiment. In the February 2001 election, the Communist Party and Voronin personally pledged to enshrine the Gagauz autonomy in Moldova’s constitution. The overwhelmingly Communist parliament in Chisinau has, however, failed to fulfill that pledge thus far. This failure has predictably strengthened the hand of a pro-Transdniester faction in Gagauzia. By last year’s end, that faction moved to reactivate the once-close relationship between the Gagauz and Tiraspol. For his part, Gagauzia’s elected Bashkhan [the autonomy’s chief executive official] Dumitru Croitor remained loyal to Chisinau.

At that point, the Communist leadership in Chisinau recklessly–and unlawfully–moved to unseat the loyal Bashkhan, apparently for no other reason than to replace Croitor with a veteran Communist apparatchik. Croitor, a non-Communist holdover from the 1990s reform era, had at that time backed Chisinau against the Transdniester-incited Gagauz separatism, then served as deputy foreign affairs minister during Mircea Snegur’s presidency, gained exposure to the West–which is exceedingly rare in that part of Moldova–and implemented the Council of Europe-approved administrative reform there.

Just as tactlessly, the Communists in Chisinau moved to extend to Gagauz-Yeri the administrative organization which they enacted for the rest of Moldova, and which would restore the Soviet-era “raions” (districts system) with the “vertical of power” throughout the country. If implemented in Gagauz-Yeri, this change could nullify its autonomy. When Croitor and the presidium of the Gagauz legislature came out against that proposed change, Chisinau’s authorities resorted to police measures against them and orchestrated a political campaign to oust Croitor in violation of the autonomy’s status. In late January-early February, Chisinau publicly accused Croitor of embezzling public funds, but adduced no serious evidence. Chisinau’s Internal Affairs Ministry and Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) attempted unsuccessfully to censor Gagauz television programs, to take over the studio’s premises and to sack Gagauz police officials, who had been appointed locally in accordance with the law. A Communist majority in the Gagauz legislature voted, first to dismiss Croitor and then to have that dismissal confirmed by a referendum. Both votes fell short of the legally required two-thirds majority in the Gagauz legislature. Nevertheless, the Communists claimed to have deposed the Bashkhan, and scheduled a referendum for February 24 to ratify that move. Chisinau’s tactics only succeeded in creating a common front of Croitor and the Gagauz legislature’s chairman, Mikhail Kendygelan, a former secessionist who has in this situation reverted to his former ways.

Almost 80 percent of the Gagauz stayed away from the referendum, many of them in the belief that Chisinau intended to “liquidate the autonomy.” Voronin and his law enforcement authorities in turn accused their Gagauz opponents of having criminally sabotaged the referendum. On March 4, Voronin went on national television to pronounce Croitor and Kendygelan guilty of embezzlement. The next day, Moldova’s General Prosecutor’s Office announced the launching of a criminal investigation against the two, also publicly asking the Communists in the Gagauz legislature to lift Speaker Kendygelan’s parliamentary immunity. Moldova’s Internal Affairs minister, Gheorghe Papuc, issued an order dismissing the Gagauz-Yeri police chief. The Gagauz authorities, however, deem the order unlawful because the minister failed to request their consent as provided by the Law on Gagauz-Yeri’s Special Status. On March 7, armed SIS agents from Chisinau seized one of the Gagauz leaders, Ivan Burguji, and jailed him incommunicado in the Moldovan capital. It was not until three days later that the police requested and received the arrest warrant from Moldova’s prosecutor general. The charges against Burguji are being kept secret. Although Burguji has an unsavory past as a paramilitary secessionist leader with close links to Tiraspol, his apparently unlawful detention has become an international embarrassment to Chisinau.

Meanwhile, Croitor and Kendygelan have filed a libel suit against Voronin. In an accompanying statement they also underscored the president’s apparent ignorance of the presumption of innocence. For his part, Voronin made a quick visit to the Gagauz autonomy on March 13 in an attempt to defuse the situation. His move was tardy, however. Two days earlier, the Gagauz leaders Croitor and Kendygelan had flown to Turkey–not from Chisinau, but from Odessa. In Turkey they are said to have already met with Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and to have a meeting scheduled with President Ahmed Necdet Sezer. Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry had, as early as February 7, issued a statement of concern over the differences between the central Moldovan and autonomous Gagauz authorities.

The situation in Gagauzia is causing international reverberations not only in Turkey. Already, on February 5, the OSCE’s Chisinau Mission issued an unusual statement criticizing the Moldovan government’s attempts–abortive though they were–to censor and take over the Gagauz television studio. On February 12, in response to further criticism from Western missions in Chisinau, the SIS declared Soviet-style that intelligence services from Turkey, the United States, Germany and Ukraine are operating in Gagauz-Yeri. The SIS statement alleged, moreover, that the OSCE Mission misrepresented the situation and damaged Moldova’s international image. On February 18-20, a visiting delegation of the Council of Europe’s Congress of the Local and Regional Authorities found that Chisinau’s and its supporters’ attempts to remove the Bashkhan were unlawful. The delegation made its findings public, as had another delegation from the same body, which strongly criticized the planned restoration of the “raion” system of the vertical of power. Voronin dismissed those findings as mere “private opinions” in a February 21 counterstatement. He apparently ignored the fact that those “opinions” are fully consistent with the stated view of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

On March 8, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) made public a statement of “serious concern” over Burguji and a request to the Moldovan government to provide clarifications in the case. ODIHR’s statement noted moreover that the moves to depose the Bashkhan had contravened both Moldova’s legislation and the Gagauz autonomy’s status. From Chisinau’s perspective, the tensions in Gagauzia and their international reverberations come at the worst possible time, adding to a host of internal and international problems that the Communists have inflicted on Moldova in their first year of governance (Roundup based on Moldovan news agencies’ reports, February-March 2002; see the Monitor, February 7).